Dirk Ockhardt, Broker & Art Collector
Giebler & Götze | Grand Tour
Dirk Ockhardt Giving Opening Reception Speech AT THE
German Consulate General in New York City
Tuesday, February 12, 2019 @ 6:00pm
What is German? Is it Heinrich Heine’s poetry “The mellow sound of bells rings gently through my mind”? Is it Novalis’s use of the blue flower as a symbol, Goethe’s Faust, perhaps wurst and sauerkraut washed down with wheat beer? Maybe exquisite music—or mass murder ushered in by a delusional sense of order? How could the land of poets and philosophers possibly become a country of judges and executioners? This is something which Thomas Mann also wondered, and he came up with an answer: Kaisersaschern. Kaisersaschern is the place where Adrian Leverkühn lived in Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel Doctor Faustus. It’s a symbol of Germany’s core: “in the middle of the home of the Reformation,” “in the heart of the Luther region,” one half in the grip of the Enlightenment, the other entangled in the Middle Ages. And it’s a delicate symbol. After all, according to Nietzsche, that was just what the Germans lacked: a core providing stability. Because the development of the German nation wasn’t completed by the foundation of Imperial Germany in 1871, Nietzsche saw it as a race still emerging, simultaneously hopeful and dangerous.
“Made in Kaisersaschern” is the title of the grand tour which for the past two years has taken Rüdiger Giebler and Moritz Götze around the world from Brussels, London and Paris via Australia and New Zealand to New York. In the 18th century, the grand tour was an educational trip that young noblemen were sent on to see the world. Mind you, the artists and friends Giebler and Götze don’t come from the nobility. Their training began 30 years ago in a country that no longer exists: the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. They are ambassadors of the region of Saxony-Anhalt, the area around Magdeburg, Halle and Naumburg which Thomas Mann called Kaisersaschern. It’s a provincial backwater full of history: a region of castles and cathedrals, battlefields of the Thirty Years War, and glittering Baroque residences; the cradle of the German chemical industry; and witness to bloodily suppressed workers’ revolts. The artists’ paintings tell of both positive and negative aspects of this history in short stories.
Rüdiger Giebler was born in Halle in 1958. After working as a surveyor, he enrolled at the local Burg Giebichenstein college of art at the age of 22. He graduated in 1986, allowing him to become a freelance painter and graphic artist. But titles don’t mean much: creative people live outside the law. Released from the golden cage of East Germany with censorship on the one hand and government commissions on the other, he and his art suddenly had to assert themselves on the free market, where the mood depends on the latest fad and where it’s easy to make a fool of oneself: “The World-sport, all-ruling, / Mingles false with true: / The Eternally Fooling / Makes us play, too!” wrote Nietzsche in his “Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.” Fifteen years ago, Giebler helped to set up a memorial in Nietzsche’s birthplace, Röcken. His job was to disrupt the too-perfect arrangement of display boards and provide the spark of chaos that brings order to life.
His visual world is still characterized by unbridled vitality. Whether large oil paintings or small drawings and gouaches, they always feature a tangle of nervous lines and twitching muscle tissue woven out of contrasting colors, pulsating and vibrating as if about to turn into something else. Snapshots of an inner transformation, unfinished on principle, primitive in the sense of original. Not an illustration of ready-made ideas but obeying unconscious impulses, even abruptly changing tack in the midst of work when layers of paint overlap as if in a dream, when figures suddenly appear … They’re reminiscent of drawings by children or “madmen” who live in their own world and haven’t yet mastered the art of dazzling with presets or seeming to be more than they actually are. Attaining this childlike quality, this seeming naïveté takes skill, honed technique, and a certain “discipline” to “reduce” what the artist sees to “a few steps,” to the essentials, as Paul Klee once summed up this method.
Rüdiger Giebler says he can hear the “last echo of Expressionism.” But it’s not a tribute to the past. The expressive, which by means of abstraction creates additional vitality, runs throughout the history of art. Seen in the earliest cave paintings, it emerges in Baroque Mannerism, comes into its own after the 1900s, and recurs with the Junge Wilde artists of the 1980s—a lava flow that will never be extinguished because it’s part and parcel of humans’ dual nature of being body and soul. Borrowing from Nietzsche, we can describe Giebler’s visual world as “Dionysian” (Rimbaud’s “deregulation of the senses” also comes to mind) in order to feel the rhythms of life.
The works of his friend could therefore be described with the principle of the “Apollonian.” Moritz Götze also comes from Halle. Born the son of two artists in 1964, from 1981 to 1983 he was an apprentice cabinet-maker, despite originally wanting to become a museum director in order to give a voice to the things he’d collected since his childhood. Genuine collectors don’t seek; instead, they find objects and keep them because they tell little stories reflecting the big picture. This collection and preservation already have something Apollonian about them: it’s the principle of individuation, the emergence and consolidation of a self that asserts itself in the world by surrounding itself with clearly defined things to create an order, its own little world. Götze, too, built himself his own world. Originally a punk singer and guitarist, he taught himself screen-printing to produce posters for bands and friends who were artists. He joined the East German Association of Artists when his wife, a ceramic artist, employed him in her workshop, enabling him to live on his own terms in one of the country’s many niches.
Until the late 1990s, these early screen prints were also expressive and anarchic. A young generation, tired of being talked down to by the pedagogues and temple guards of state socialism, saw them as a chance to escape. Hip young things romped colorfully on the prints as if in comics: young, dynamic, with fast cars and beautiful women against the backdrop of major metropolises. Critics welcomed the arrival of pop art, of lightness in German painting, and acclaimed the prodigy creating a colorful world of images for everyone with no academic ballast.
But what most admirers of Götz still overlook to this day is that right from the start, his characters were rigid prisoners of their individuation lost in themselves, something Nietzsche saw personified in Apollo—the principle of tearing a moment out of the course of life, giving it shape, and hence simultaneously condemning it to death. For something which has come into being is transitory; in order to last, it must be constantly changing. On closer inspection, the black thumbnail sketches of people turn out to be the sadness of atomized figures, floating as it were in the cosmic emptiness of space, detached despite being so close to each other. Moritz Götze’s colorful visual world is deeply melancholic, despite its creator being so life-affirming. Maybe this is German, a legacy of Romanticism. At any rate, it connects him with Nietzsche, who wanted to approve of the emerging nihilism, the secretly sinister revaluation of all values, and to rise above himself. Götze holds a mirror up to us, he shocks-freezes the brave new world, the colorful cosmos of cheap objects in which we turn ourselves into objects without a murmur.
Over the past two decades, this mirror has changed. The painter not only tells stories, he has also appropriated history as reflected in canonical images. In the early 2000s, he began to reproduce icons of East German painting with his stylistic devices. In 2003, he counteracted the 1890 book Bildersaal deutscher Geschichte (‘Picture Hall of German History’), which was originally supposed to illustrate the Germans’ national history. And in the following years, he trained his sights on the leading figures of Prussia.
The distortion of the found material compels observers to confront the images we carry in our heads, the mosaic stones of historically evolved world views. Götze thus turned from a storyteller into an anti-historical painter of history questioning the assumptions of our worldview.
However, working on pictures in this way also altered his own imagery. The anarchic awkwardness, the wild rawness of his youth gradually gave way to smooth lines of graceful confidence and classically trained beauty. The punk became a sovereign, who from 2013 to 2016 decorated an entire church—the chapel at Bernburg Palace—with enamel paintings.
The journey of both the Dionysian orgiast of vibrant colors and the Apollonian illustrator of the sovereign line continues, and it will be interesting
to see how the grand tour changes their work. Sadly, Moritz Götze couldn’t take the chapel with him to New York, but he does have a new work in enamel as a greeting to America: “German Soup” in cans bearing portraits of Goethe, Kleist and Novalis, Nietzsche and Fontane, also Brecht and Kafka. I hope the heavy fare of the German spirit in this pop art packaging proves delicious!
Jena, in winter 2018